Printing a Nation: Dr Anindita Ghosh discusses her new BBC Radio 4 Series on the history of the printing press in India!


Dr Anindita Ghosh at College Street, Kolkata, one of the largest book markets in the world, where books are precariously but perfectly balanced in high piles – a hallmark feature of the bookstalls in the area.

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BBC Radio 4: Broadcasting times: 11.31 a.m. on the 13th and 20th of April 

Anindita’s programme was based on her own research on popular publishing in India. To read more about it click

Today India has the biggest market in printed books in the world, with canny authors like Jeffrey Archer preferring to launch their newest works there, tapping into the vast Indian readership, literate in English. How did it all start?  In this series, Dr. Anindita Ghosh argues that print, much more than railways (as is commonly understood), gave birth to the India we know today. An historical understanding of this biggest export of the Raj – the printing press – helps us to appreciate how print irreversibly changed the Indian world. 

In this programme Anindita will explore how print helped dramatically expand the borders of the reading community, initiate an exchange of ideas with the world on an unprecedented scale and to galvanize social and political change. Not only the English printing presses but a plethora of enlightened vernacular presses in India spearheaded this intellectual revolution. Translated European classics and scientific texts were eagerly devoured by Indians while translations of ancient Indian scriptural works found their way to foreign shores.

In time, the commercial presses took over, establishing some of the widest known networks and markets in print literature in the world. In the twentieth century the nationalist intelligentsia rode to power on the back of the printed press with newspapers, pamphlets, published speeches and letters circulating in an ever expanding literate society and bringing Indians together in a common platform. Print was thus fundamental in shaping the vision of the India that was born in 1947.


Meeting with the direct descendants of the bookseller she had encountered in the archives, was a thrilling moment for Anindita. The original bookshop of Nrityalal Shil was founded in 1877 and the business still thrives!

This two part series will combine location work with readings from the archives as well as interviews from specialists, all set to a music score which will be evocative of time and place.  Anindita will travel to the back streets of Calcutta, where printing took off and still thrives today (some small presses are still run by descendants of the original nineteenth century ones). She will delve into India and Britain’s national archives to explore printed pamphlets and books from the vernacular collections as well as some of the earliest printed books in India. And she will speak to experts including Prof Tanika Sarkar (JNU, New Delhi); Graham Shaw (ex-Director of the Asia and Pacific Collections at the BL); Prof Christopher Pinney (UCL); and Prof Sunil Khilnani (KCL, London).

Programme 1.  Knowledge

In programme 1, Anindita explores the ‘renaissance’ that came about through the medium of print in India.  She travels to Calcutta to explore the tremendous explosion of printed material in the nineteenth century, following an ‘Orientalist’ interest in India. But this was a two-way process. Translations of ancient Indian scriptural texts reached British shores even as European philosophy, history, science and classical literature filled up Indian shelves, and literary clubs and societies mushroomed in towns and cities for the circulation of such works. While the British colonial bureaucracy from the early nineteenth century onwards came to be increasingly based on print, the local presses learned the art of printing rapidly to launch a rich trade in books. Initial experimentation with vernacular type-faces and wooden presses involved indigenous printers who learned the craft alongside the British/European printers, in time setting up their own presses.

But this was not a passive process. Indians in turn participated in the intellectual revolution to form their own thoughts on society, community and the nation. The search for a putative ‘Indian’ identity that followed was very much shaped through an exchange of ideas (via printed material) not only amongst Indians, but also Europeans. Over the course of the nineteenth century, a sea of Indian vernacular presses furthered the print revolution (between 1868 and 1905 alone about two hundred thousand titles were published – more, by far, than the total output in France during the Age of Enlightenment).  By carrying the printed word to more popular levels of readership and extending the networks of the reading community, Anindita argues, these were connections that were to prove vital for the formation of the nation in twentieth century India.

Programme 2. Nation



Hidden nationalist image under a plain black hat or topi. Images courtesy of Anindita Ghosh.

In programme 2 Anindita explores how the printing press played a fundamental role in the rise of nationalism in India. Perhaps the most profound outcome of the circulation of printed matter in India in the nineteenth century was the bringing together of far flung communities on a common platform and in a shared imagination of nation, history and community.  She argues that it was vernacular more than English print that achieved this process at the deepest levels, and with literacy figures rising in the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the impact of the humble printing press was manifold.

Starting with the nationalist newspapers which struck up an anti-colonial line, to proscribed potentially seditious pamphlets surviving in the British Library collections, Anindita explores how instrumental printing was for the nationalist cause. English language papers as well as vernacular newspapers were crucial in forging anticolonial sentiments among the reading public.

In response, the colonial government passed draconian acts which empowered district magistrates to seize presses of papers they deemed to be seditious. These measures applied to all publications, books and pamphlets as well as newspapers, and authorized searches of the mail and of bookshops in addition to printing shops. But clamping down was not easy. Books and pamphlets, especially collections of songs and texts of plays, could penetrate even more effectively into the world of the illiterate, because they were acted out in oral performances, which often combined music, mime, and drama.

Anindita argues that print was key to the shaping of a modern public sphere in India because print was the vehicle of critical ideas of community, history, society, culture and identity that emerged in modern India.  Print was in that sense, modern India.

Presenter: Dr. Anindita Ghosh, School of Arts Languages and Cultures, University of Manchester.; Ph: 0161 275 3095




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